Wurmbea elatior B.Nord.
Common names: pepper-and-salt flower (Eng.); sout-en-peper-blommetjie (Afr.); khahlana-ea-loti (seSotho)
Wurmbea elatior is an attractive plant with striking white flowers marked with dark reddish purple and can be easily identified by its musky smell.
Pepper-and-salt flower is a perennial plant that grows up to 400 mm tall. It is a summer-growing plant with its corm buried deep underground. Wurmbea elatior has 3 narrow leaves that partly sheath the stem, up to 450 x 7 mm, with slender tips. About 20 flowers bloom in the 150 mm long, upright inflorescence, the spikey white flowers with glossy deep red to purplish black marks in the middle of each tepal. The flower has a strong musky smell, which has been described as that of a horse dung, vanilla or a sewage farm. The flowering period is late summer, January to May.
The Red List status for Wurmbea elatior is Least Concern (LC), which means it is not threatened in its natural habitat.
Distribution and habitat
This species is distributed from Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho to Harrismith in the Free State. It is found growing on streambanks and marshes at altitudes of 1 200-3 000 m.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Wurmbea was named after a Dutch merchant from Java whose name was F. von Wurm and the species name elatior means tall. Wurmbeas are in the Colchicaceae family, which was formerly part of Liliaceae. The genus occurs in Australia and Africa, has approximately 38 species and 21 of them are found in South Africa.
Known pollinators for Wurmbea elatior are mostly flies, which are dung fly, flesh fly, and blow fly. The flower smells like animal dung and attracts insect pollinators which are associated with animal dung.
The irresistible, beautiful flowers make this plant a good garden flower.
Growing Wurmbea elatior
Wurmbea elatior has not yet been propagated in Kwelera NBG, and there is nothing published regarding how to grow it. However, the closely related Wurmbea stricta which is from the winter-rainfall region, is cultivated at Kirstenbosch NBG and Wurmbea elatior could be treated in a similar way, provided the propagation methods are adapted to its summer-growing conditions. The plant may be grown from separating the new developing corms from the mother plant towards the end of the growing period or while the plant is dormant in winter. The corms must be kept dry during the dormant period or else the corms will rot. Seeds are best sown at the start of the growing season, in spring, using a medium that will drain freely. Grow in well-drained soil, in full sun, feed and water in spring and summer and keep cool and dry in winter.
- Duncan, G. 2005. Wurmbea stricta (Burm.f.) J.C. Manning & A.Vinnersten (Colchicaceae). PlantZAfrica. Online. http://pza.sanbi.org/wurmbea-stricta.
- Johnson, S.D., Jadine, S., Sachin, D. & Shuttleworth, A. 2020. Dung mimicry: the function of volatile emissions and corolla patterning in fly-pollinated Wurmbea flowers. New Phytologist 228(5):1662-1673.
- Manning, J. 2009. Field guide to wild flowers of South Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 2003. Mountain flowers, a field guide to the flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Pooley, E. 2005. A field guide to wild flowers KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. The Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
Sibahle Gumede and Sihle Mvunyiswa
Millennium Seed Bank Partnership: Kwelera NBG
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal
Soil type: Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Late Summer, Autumn
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Purple, White
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Challenging